Don’t get me wrong: I deeply appreciate that our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition emphasizes intelligent, scholarly engagement with Scripture and theological tradition. I love it that John Calvin, the fountainhead of our particular stream of Christianity, was a scholar and not a cleric. I appreciate that our colleges and seminaries are populated with biblical scholars who seek to understand and apply Scripture.
But I am disturbed when church members, ruling elders, deacons, teaching elders (a.k.a. pastors), and even church councils mentally place “scholars” at the top of the authority heap. It’s disturbing because our polity gives no formal authority to “scholars” for decision making. We have church councils (sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly) with all their appendages, made up of teaching and ruling elders, who discern together Christ’s will for the church. We also have a body of confessions that articulate our Reformed heritage and provide pretty clear boundaries when it comes to doctrine and practice.
Presbytery did not commit doctrinal error in its decision to accept the departure and to ordain the candidate. The record and trial testimony make clear that interpretations of scripture and the confessions, and the conclusions that result from those interpretations, have not been uniform in the history and practice of the Church. Nor are those interpretations uniform among theologians and biblical scholars within the denomination, as witness testimony and the record make clear. (Emphasis added)
This kind of thinking just doesn’t belong in our polity. But it doesn’t happen solely in mainline circles either. I often hear Christians of all stripes appeal to the almighty scholars who apparently know everything and who are the final word on every matter. But what if scholars sometimes err? What if the human intellect (which is subject to sin and corruption and prone to rebel against God’s governance) is actually fallible? What if scholars, just like the rest of us redeemed sinners, start with preconceived attitudes and form their opinions around them? I know that lots of us Protestants don’t have bishops or a magisterium to guard doctrinal integrity, but could we at least stick to our own authority and polity structure? Can we at the very least adhere to our confessional and scriptural tradition?